Oprah: What defines you?

Condoleezza: I care a lot about people—those who work for me, my parents, my family. Even in these busy times, I find time for the people who have meant a lot to me throughout my life. If you get caught up in the present and aren't somehow connected to those people, you can lose your way.

Oprah: You attended segregated schools until you were in tenth grade. Even then, did you believe the sky was the limit?

Condoleezza: I haven't ever really been very self-reflective, so I was kind of oblivious during that time. I just kept going. People would say to me, "What do you want to be?" and my answer would change from week to week. Most of the time I wanted to be a concert pianist. I lived day to day, and I am still someone with no long-term plan.

Oprah: So you were open to the possibility of what could be?

Condoleezza: Right—and I did what I liked. I didn't always do what I was good at. Sometimes I was doggedly determined to do something I was clearly bad at, like figure skating. But I kept going from opportunity to opportunity.

Oprah: Growing up in Birmingham, you probably didn't have many positive images of what a black woman could be.

Condoleezza: Oh, but I did! My mother was a teacher—a stunningly beautiful woman who believed in dressing well. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember my mother bringing out a recording of Aida because she thought it was time for me to learn about opera. My parents and our whole community were so focused on making sure their children had exposure to things. We were a self-contained community, and there were extremely positive black role models.

Oprah: Tell me about the first time you went to the desegregated all-girls school in Denver.

Condoleezza: I really didn't think much about the fact that there were only three black women in my class rather than all black people. Later, when I started at the University of Denver, there was a professor who was preaching about [scientist] William Shockley, who claimed that blacks just didn't have high IQs. And from somewhere deep within myself I said to him, "Who do you think you are? I'm better at your culture than you are. I'm the one who plays Beethoven. I'm the one who speaks French. So obviously this can be taught."

Oprah: But otherwise you didn't have many racial incidents growing up?

Condoleezza: Because Birmingham was so segregated, I actually had few racial incidents there. Race was so much a part of the environment that it didn't stick out the way it did in Denver. Race was everything in Birmingham—so in a sense it was nothing. In Denver race suddenly became more of a factor because I was actually interacting with people different from me.